by James Shelley: http://jamesshelley.net/2014/03/confidence-trap-the-curse-of-resilience-or-the-nine-lives-of-democracy/
In his book, The Confidence Trap, the British
political scientist David Runciman (b. 1967) reviews the history of
democratic nations and arrives at a startling (yet intuitive)
conclusion: they don’t look pretty.
Democracies always seem to be mucking about in a state of uncertainty
Ask just about any citizen from any democracy, past or
present, and they will describe virtually the same scene: government is
plagued by scandals, overrun with opportunists, stalemated by rhetoric,
and laughably ineffective at making substantial progress.
occasions when it all appears to be working are brought to crashing
halts by new election terms or unforeseen challenges.
Therefore, you can never look at a democracy and say, “Ok, perfect!
We’ve accomplished it!”
Democracies never ‘arrive’ or ‘finish’; they
cannot achieve a state of completion or prove themselves in a moment of
Not only is their leadership always in flux, they are
constantly trying to make sense of themselves in an ever-changing
geopolitical theatre. One botched, jumbled move after another,
democracies just keep trudging through their own debris.
The consequence of all this is that democracies are inherently
disillusioning - they are, at any given moment, greatly disappointing. But the messiness of democratic life is also the secret of its
Even though the day-to-day fracas of political squabbling
appears to be a farce, established democracies are incredibly adaptive
organisms. They somehow bounce back from crisis and setback with
remarkable (and haplessly chaotic) agility.
Runciman argues that the Achilles heel of democracy is the confidence
that democracies generate about themselves.
Consider: Democracies look
like they are in a constant state of crisis, but still they manage to
overcome crises as they come. Every time a democracy weathers a crisis,
it survives to face another one. Democratic crisis thus becomes an
expected and normalized way of life, and with this expectancy comes
In a democracy, complacency is really just a manifestation
of confidence: even though politics is a mess, we’re convinced
that we’ll make it through anyway (after all, we’ve made it through
everything so far).
Democracies are a paradox: in the immediate context they usually look
like a den of dysfunctional crooks and swindlers, but in the long view
of history they just keep puttering right along, weathering one crisis
In other words, democracy seems to breed disinterest in itself:
Citizens need to have confidence in democracy if it is to function at
all. And the longer a democracy functions, the more confidence citizens
have in it. But the more confidence citizens have, the less inclined
they are to pay attention to the affairs of their state. This is the
The danger is not that we don’t believe in democracy enough. The danger is that we believe in it too much.
After all, democratic society hasn’t collapsed yet, so why bother paying attention to it now?